In the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, a small airplane
crashed not long after takeoff near Clear Lake, Iowa. Killed were
Buddy Holly (center photo), Ritchie Valens (far right photo) and the Big Bopper (left left photo), who was also known as
J.P. (Jape) Richardson. In looking back on the tragedy, many think
three were killed in the crash but the number was actually four. The
pilot, Roger Peterson, also perished. The crash happened a few hours
after a Winter Dance Party Tour performance at Clear Lake's Surf
Ballroom. To this day, there are annual Winter Dance Party reunion
concerts every year at about this time in Clear Lake.
The reasons for the ill-fated flight were at least two-fold. Holly
wanted to get caught up on cleaning his clothes at a laundromat at
the city of destination, Fargo, North Dakota, which was near the next
tour stop, Moorhead, Minnesota. He couldn't find a laundromat in
Clear Lake. Plus, they also wanted to escape having to ride on the
tour bus. That bus was so cold that often newspapers were burned just
to keep warm. A backup singer, Carl Bunch, even suffered from
frostbite and had to be briefly hospitalized.
The year 1959 would end the 1950's, the decade with the most dramatic
change in pop music direction ever. The 1950's would begin with easy
listening or middle-of-the-radio music dominating the scene. It was
the followup to the 1940's, where big band music ruled. So, the
1950's began with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony
Bennett, the Weavers, Teresa Brewer, Eddie Fisher, Bing Crosby, Les
Paul and Mary Ford, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney and Johnnie Ray
dominating the music charts.
The decade would end with the likes of Elvis Presley, Fats Domino,
the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Pat
Boone, the Platters, Paul Anka, Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon and
Lloyd Price. Legendary disc jockey Alan Freed led the way, coining
the term "Rock And Roll," to describe the newer fresher music that
would explode onto the scene. Freed didn't invent the term; he
popularized it. After all, we had a 1934 single release by the
Boswell Sisters entitled, "Rock And Roll."
We had some rock era passings prior to February 3, 1959. For instance, Johnny
Ace was only 25 when he died Christmas Eve, 1954, backstage in
Houston in an incident involving Russian Roulette. And in the spring
of 1958, Chuck Willis, The King of the Stroll, was a mere 30 when he
died of a bleeding ulcer. Willis' hits included "C.C. Rider," the
song Elvis Presley would open his 1970's concerts with.
"The Day The Music Died," though, was rock and roll music's first true
tragedy. This writer was in the seventh grade when it happened. A day
or two later, while waiting with others in the wintry cold for a
shuttle bus, somebody mentioned how over 100 people died in a plane
crash. At that point, I asked about the plane crash that killed
Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. Somebody yelled out, "Only three
people died in that crash! NOBODY'S going to remember that crash."
Charles Hardin Holley was only 22 when he died. His last name would
lose the "e" when a record contract left the letter out. Buddy
Holly's impact on pop music was so great that he was among the first
induction class for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He
fronted the group, the Crickets, who in turn were among the first
rock groups ever to feature a lead guitarist. In the late summer and
early fall of 1957, the group borrowed a line from a John Wayne
western movie, "The Searchers," and took "That'll Be The Day" to #3
on the Cash Box pop singles chart. Buddy's followup, "Peggy Sue," a
solo effort, reached #3. The song was based on a real Peggy Sue
Gerron, who married Crickets' drummer Jerry Allison.
The Crickets nearly had two more Top tenners but "Oh Boy" peaked at
#13 and "Maybe Baby" reached #11. Holly's last top 40 hit while he
was still alive was the #25 peaking "Early In The Morning." He would
have a #30 posthumous top 40 hit with "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," which
Paul Anka wrote.
Holly's impact on rock music can also be shown with how so many of
his songs would be remade later on. Compiling a complete list is
impossible but here's some that come to mind: Linda Ronstadt had
remake hits with "That'll Be The Day" and "It Doesn't Matter
Anymore." The ballad "True Love Ways" was a #13 hit in 1965 for the
British duo Peter And Gordon and would also be remade by Mickey
Gilley. The Bobby Fuller Four had a minor #51 hit in 1966 with
"Love's Made A Fool Of You." The Rolling Stones and Tanya Tucker
would remake "Not Fade Away." The Rivieras and the Nitty Gritty Dirt
Band would redo "Oh Boy." Plus, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would
remake "Rave On" along with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
and John Mellencamp. Buddy Holly’s music would inspire the Beatles among many others.
Richard Valenzuela was only 17 when he died on February 3, 1959. As
Ritchie Valens, he first hit with the #51 song, "Come On, Let's Go,"
which would be a remake hit for the McCoys and Los Lobos. Then came
his biggest hit, "Donna," which nearly became a #1 posthumous hit,
reaching #2 on the Cash Box pop chart. The song was Ritchie
expressing his feelings about a high school classmate, Donna Ludwig.
The flip side to "Donna," though, would give Valens' fame as it would
be the title of the 1987 movie about his life, "La Bamba." In the
soundtrack, Los Lobos would take a remake of the song to #1.
The Big Bopper was a fun-loving singer-songwriter-DJ whose biggest
hit was the #4, "Chantilly Lace." He actually raps some in that hit,
saying "pick you up at eight, and don't be late." He had another top
40 hit with the #39 song, "The Big Bopper's Wedding." He also
recorded hits like "White Lightning," "Little Red Riding Hood" and
"The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor." Richardson would be
immortalized in a #1 single nearly a year after his passing. In
January 1960, Johnny Preston reached the top of the Cash Box pop
chart with "Running Bear," a song Richardson wrote. Plus, the Big
Bopper and George Jones supplied the background "Ooom-Baahs" in the
Richardson was 28 when he died. When his son, Jay Richardson,
was still alive, he gave his late father a new casket. The old casket was scheduled to be
auctioned off on e-Bay, with proceeds going towards a musical
designed to help keep The Big Bopper's memory alive. Jay Richardson was 54 when he died in August, 2013.
There have been misconceptions and ironies galore surrounding "The
Day The Music Died." In the movie, "The Buddy Holly Story," a cricket
infiltrates the makeshift studio where Holly and his group were
practicing. That incident wasn't the inspiration for the group naming
itself the Crickets, though. In a 1987 interview conducted by this
writer with Jerry Allison, the Crickets' drummer said the group was
inspired by a group called the Spiders. "So," Allison said, "we
decided 'let's be insects'."
In the movie "La Bamba," the coin flip between Valens and backup
musician Tommy Allsup takes place on the Clear Lake airport's runway.
Actually, it took place inside the Surf Ballroom. Allsup is believed to be alive, 82 years old, living in Azle, Texas, and
operating Common Ground Studios. He lost the coin flip but won his life.
A future Rock And Roll Hall of Famer nearly became the fourth
musician to step onto that plane. However, Dion DiMucci decided that
the plane fare ($36) was too high and passed on the trip.
Finally, perhaps the greatest irony of them all came when the late
Waylon Jennings, who like Allsup was a backing musician, gave up his
seat to Richardson on the plane. Richardson had either a cold or the flu. That decision and what he said to Holly were things that would haunt Waylon the rest
of his life. Not long before the plane took off, Holly supposedly
told Jennings, "I hope your old bus freezes up."
And Jennings reportedly replied, "I hope your damn plane crashes."